Posts Tagged ‘prosecution’

Elizabeth Warren on white-collar prosecution — and what to do instead

My new piece at Cato, citing Carissa Byrne Hessick and Benjamin Levin at Slate, discusses Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to lower the standard for criminal culpability in many white-collar prosecutions to simple negligence. It begins:

Presidential candidate and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) wants to see more business people behind bars, and she’s not fussy about how to make that happen. In a Washington Post op-ed last week she unveiled a new Corporate Executive Accountability Act, which in her words would expand “criminal liability to any corporate executive who negligently oversees a giant company causing severe harm to U.S. families.” She says she wants top executives to know that they can be (again in her own words) “hauled out in handcuffs for failing to reasonably oversee the companies they run.”

And ends:

The civil courts already hear many thousands of cases seeking damages over claims that serious harm arose from industry conduct that falls short of being reckless or deliberately wrongful. Not infrequently – as with claims over supposed “sudden acceleration” in cars, cancer from Roundup, and autoimmune disease from silicone breast implants – large sums get paid even when science finds no basis for concluding the products caused the harms alleged, such is our legal system’s tendency to tilt against business defendants as unsympathetic. Under the Warren standard, complaints that driverless cars have gotten into avoidable accidents or vaccines have caused side effects – maybe even that cheeseburgers, supersize sodas, and margaritas have worsened the harms of obesity – will put business people at risk for long prison terms. To her backers, will this count as a bug? Or a feature?

Aside from the propriety of criminalizing simple negligence, the issue is not so much that individuals as such are the wrong target for white-collar prosecution — as Stephen Bainbridge has argued, holding them personally culpable will often make more sense than prosecuting the corporate entity — as that notions of collective guilt must not be used to impute criminal culpability to others within an organization not proved to have committed wrong acts or acted with wrong mind. While the Warren proposal would march off in the wrong direction, in the Cato Handbook for Policymakers two years ago,
I contributed a chapter on white-collar prosecution with the following recommendations:

Congress and state lawmakers (and where appropriate, the president and executive branch law enforcement officials) should

  • review existing law with an eye toward rolling back overcriminalization and replacing criminal penalties with civil sanctions where feasible;
  • enact reforms such as the model Criminal Intent Protection Act to bolster recognition of mens rea (punishment should ordinarily require a guilty state of mind, not inadvertent noncompliance) as well as the related mistake of law defense in criminal law;
  • codify the common law rule of lenity (ambiguity in law should be resolved against finding guilt), as Texas joined other states in doing in 2015;
  • devise safe harbor provisions that enable economic actors to avoid criminal liability by behaving reasonably and in intended compliance with the law;
  • limit agency discretion to create new crimes without an act of the legislature;
  • enact guidelines to strengthen judicial oversight of deferred prosecution agreements and nonprosecution agreements (explicit court approval, not the unilateral say-so of government prosecutors, should be required for appointment of corporate monitors or the extension of time under supervision);
  • enact asset forfeiture reforms such as Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner’s (R-WI) Due Process Act, including requiring that conviction be a prerequisite for forfeiture; review and, where appropriate, reduce or coordinate per offense fines and sanctions to avoid levying penalties disproportionate to the gravity of misconduct;
  • prohibit, as a proposed New Mexico law would do, the allocation of settlement moneys (cy pres) to charities, nonprofits, or advocacy groups not themselves injured;
  • assign penalties, forfeitures, and settlement proceeds to the public treasury or, where appropriate in certain cases, to private parties who can show specific individual injury from the offense (penalties should not fund particular government agencies in ways that incentivize zealous enforcement or insulate the agencies from appropriations oversight);
  • prohibit the payment of public lawyers and forensics experts on contingency, that is, in ways dependent on case outcome or the magnitude of penalties (this principle should apply alike to career prosecutors, other staff public lawyers, experts, and outside law firms); existing contingency arrangements should be terminated; and
  • impose transparent principles of selection and payment on outside contracting for legal services.

Crime and punishment roundup

  • Bloodstain analysis convinced a jury Julie Rea killed her 10-year-old son. It took four years for her to be acquitted on retrial, and another four to be exonerated. Has anything been learned? [Pamela Colloff, ProPublica] Forensics’ alternative-facts problem [Radley Balko] The chemists and the coverup: inside the Massachusetts drug lab scandal [Shawn Musgrave, Reason, earlier here, here, here, etc.]
  • “I would say, you know, as a parting gift, if you’d like to throw in some iPhones every year, we would be super jazzed about that…. So, you know, a hundred, 200 a year.” A window on the unusual business of prison-phone service [Ben Conarck, Florida Times-Union, state Department of Corrections]
  • Should juries be forbidden to hear any evidence or argument about their power of conscientious acquittal? [Jay Schweikert on Cato amicus in case of U.S. v. Manzano, Second Circuit; related, David Boaz on 1960s-era jury nullification of sodomy charges]
  • This hardly ever happens: prosecutor disbarred for misconduct [Matt Sledge, Baton Rouge Advocate; Louisiana high court revokes license of Sal Perricone following anonymous-commenting scandal]
  • “Cultural impact assessments”: Canadian courts weighing whether race should play role in sentencing minority offenders [Dakshana Bascaramurty, Globe and Mail]
  • “The Threat of Creeping Overcriminalization” [Cato Daily Podcast with Shon Hopwood and Caleb Brown] “Tammie Hedges and the Overcriminalization of America” [James Copland and Rafael Mangual, National Review]

USG: whoops, that Mata Hari stuff was just banter over car insurance

Prosecutors can plant wrong, inflammatory, and damaging stories about defendants with no real consequence, part 24,873 [Sharon LaFraniere, New York Times]:

Federal prosecutors have admitted that they wrongly accused Maria Butina, a Russian citizen now in custody on charges of illegally acting as a foreign agent, of offering to trade sex for a job as part of a covert effort by Russian government officials to infiltrate Republican circles in the United States.

In a court filing late Friday, prosecutors in the United States attorney’s office in Washington acknowledged that they had been “mistaken” in interpreting what were apparently joking text messages between Ms. Butina and a friend who had helped her renew her car insurance.

Crime and punishment roundup

  • “They Shared Drugs. Someone Died. Does That Make Them Killers?” [Rosa Goldensohn, New York Times in May, earlier on overdose prosecutions here, etc.]
  • Also from May, missed this good Jill Lepore piece on rise of victims’ rights revolution, powered by both feminist and conservative impulses [The New Yorker; my comment on victim impact statements]
  • UK: sexual assault cases collapse after prosecution shown to have held back material helpful to defense [Sky News]
  • “The ongoing problem of conveniently malfunctioning police cameras” [Radley Balko]
  • Bail reform activists shift focus toward problems with/tradeoffs of risk assessment algorithms, suggesting that previous “whole problem is private actors making a buck” theme might have been oversimplified [Scott Shackford, earlier here, here, here, etc.] Calif. Gov. Jerry Brown signs comprehensive bail reform bill [Jazmine Ulloa, L.A. Times]
  • Second Circuit: New York’s gravity-knife law isn’t unconstitutionally vague [opinion courtesy Institute for Justice, earlier]

“Plea Bargaining: Good Policy or Good Riddance?”

Cato held a conference on plea bargaining last month:

Today, more than 95 percent of criminal convictions in the United States are obtained through plea bargains. As the Supreme Court observed in 2012, “criminal justice today is for the most part a system of pleas, not a system of trials.” Compared with jury trials, plea bargains are efficient and inexpensive, and they free up resources that might otherwise be devoted to securing convictions in cases where the defendant’s guilt is not seriously in doubt.

But plea bargaining has a dark side as well. Given the imbalance of resources between prosecutors and most defendants, together with the array of tools that prosecutors can bring to bear in any given case, such as mandatory minimum sentences, charge-stacking, and witness inducements, it is fair to ask how many guilty pleas are truly voluntary. A growing body of evidence suggests that false confessions may not be nearly as rare as we would hope, and indeed the specter of coercion casts a shadow over the entire plea-bargaining process.

The panel featured the Hon. Joseph Goodwin, a federal judge in West Virginia who has announced that he would no longer accept plea bargains except when there are truly extenuating, case-specific circumstances; New York City criminal defense attorney and popular law blogger Scott Greenfield, and University of Illinois law Prof. Suja Thomas, with Cato’s Clark Neily moderating. You can watch or download it here.

Crime and punishment roundup

  • Why Baltimore’s Civilian Review Board hasn’t done much to fix its police crisis [J.F. Meils, Capitol News Service/Maryland Reporter]
  • Three prosecutors with high national profiles who’ve put up dogged, maybe too dogged, resistance to actual-innocence claims [Lara Bazelon, Slate]
  • Carceral liberalism: Advocates press to do away with statute of limitations for sex assault prosecutions [Scott Greenfield]
  • “No charges have been filed against the cops. All of the officers involved are still employed by the department.” [Christina Carrega, New York Daily News on nearly $1 million award to Oliver Wiggins, unsuccessfully framed for DWI after police car ran stop sign and crashed into his vehicle]
  • Founding-era views of duty-to-retreat vs. stand-your-ground might be more complicated than you think [Eugene Volokh]
  • The trial penalty “is among the most important features of America’s criminal justice system, and yet there is no reference to it in the Constitution” [Clark Neily, Cato]

Crime and punishment roundup

  • Fiasco of Cliven Bundy prosecution points up that even those who break the law are entitled to a fair trial. “In the Bundy case, Judge Navarro slammed the FBI for withholding key evidence. Unfortunately, this seems to be standard procedure for the FBI.” [James Bovard, USA Today; Mark Joseph Stern, Slate; earlier]
  • Don’t undermine structural protection Double Jeopardy Clause provides against prosecutorial overreach [Jay Schweikert on Cato amicus brief in Currier v. Virginia] Case gives SCOTUS chance to reconsider “dual sovereignty” exception to Double Jeopardy Clause [Ilya Shapiro on Cato certiorari brief in Gamble v. U.S.]
  • “The room he was in happened to fall within 572 feet of a park and 872 feet of a school,” within the 1000 feet set by Tennessee law, result misery [C.J. Ciaramella and Lauren Krisai, Reason (“Drug-free school zone laws are rarely if ever used to prosecute sales of drugs to minors. Such cases are largely a figment of our popular imagination.”)]
  • Missed last spring: this challenge to the “Standard Story” of mass incarceration [Adam Gopnik on John Pfaff’s “Locked In”]
  • Ignorance of the law is no excuse. But with law having proliferated beyond anyone’s grasp, perhaps it should be? [Stephen Carter, Bloomberg, earlier]
  • Another study finds decriminalizing prostitution reduces sexual abuse and rape [Alex Tabarrok]

Crime and punishment roundup

  • Drivers’ license should signify ability to drive motor vehicle safely. Denial for miscellaneous arm-twisting reasons – e.g. child support – is bad policy. [Beth Schwartzapfel, Marshall Project (“43 states suspend driver’s licenses for unpaid court debts, but only four require a hearing beforehand to determine whether the failure to pay is willful or simply a reflection of poverty.”); Jessica Silver-Greenberg, Stacy Cowley and Natalie Kitroeff, NYT (“Twenty states suspend people’s professional or driver’s licenses if they fall behind on [student] loan payments, according to records obtained by The New York Times.”)] Earlier here (tax delinquents in New York), here, here, here, etc.;
  • Under centuries of precedent, bail must be individualized as well as not excessive [Ilya Shapiro on Cato amicus in Walker v. City of Calhoun, Eleventh Circuit] And my piece on Maryland’s botched bail reform is now available ungated at Cato;
  • Harvey Silverglate recounts an old tale of prosecutorial entrapment — starring Robert Mueller, then acting U.S. Attorney in Boston [WGBH]
  • Criminal justice, mass incarceration, and the libertarian cause: Radley Balko’s speech on winning Bastiat Award [Reason]
  • “The Troubling Expansion Of The Criminal Offense Of Obstructing The IRS” [Kathryn Ward Booth, Vanderbilt Law]
  • Murder rap for drug supplier after overdose distorts both criminal law principle and incentives [Scott Greenfield, earlier here and here, see also here and here (prescribing doctors)]

Banking and finance roundup